The Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (the ICU) was the largest black union and protest movement in 1920s South Africa, also spreading into neighbouring Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South West Africa (now Namibia). It was influenced by IWW syndicalism, even adopting a version of the IWW constitution in 1925, and pushed for a general strike the next year. However, syndicalism was not the only influence: ICU ideas were, as writers like Helen Bradford have shown, an unstable mix, drawing from currents as far apart as Garveyism and liberalism. It’s internal structures were also far from the participatory democratic ideal. However, if the ICU was not truly syndicalist, Lucien van der Walt argues, it cannot be understood unless the syndicalist influence is noted.
This article was published by Lucien van der Walt in Direct Action (Australia, Summer 2001) as “Many Races, One Union! The IWW, revolutionary syndicalism and working class struggle in South Africa, 1910-21.” It was reprinted in Bread and Roses (Britain, Autumn 2001) as “A History of the IWW in South Africa.”
Note: An incomplete version has also appeared on the internet under the title “1816-1939: Syndicalism in South Africa,” described as “a short history of radical trade unionism, class struggle and race in Southern Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries.” The dates are wrong (there was no syndicalism anywhere in 1816, and while the IWW-influenced ICU would last in Zimbabwe into the 1950s, there was no syndicalism in South Africa in 1939) and several paragraphs are missing, in that version.
For PDF of scanned Direct Action version: click here
For PDF of scanned Bread and Roses version: click here
Lucien van der Walt, Autumn 2001, “A History of the IWW in South Africa,” Bread and Roses
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the ideas, goals and organisational practices for which it stood, had an important influence on the early labour movement and radical press in South Africa. It also had an impact on neighbouring Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Furthermore, at least five unions were founded on the IWW model in this period. Four of these unions pioneered the organisation of workers of colour, most notably the Industrial Workers of Africa, the first union for African workers in South African history Continue reading
Whereas the interest of the workers and those of the employers are opposed to each other, the former living by selling their labour, receiving for its labour only part of the wealth they produce; and the latter living by exploiting the labour of the workers; depriving the workers of a part of the product of their labour in the form of profit, no peace can be between the two classes, a struggle must always obtain about the division of the products of human labour, until the workers through their industrial organisations take from the capitalist class the means of production, to be owned and controlled by the workers for the benefit of all, instead of for the profit of a few.
Under such a system, he who does not work, neither shall he eat. The basis of remuneration shall be the principle, from each man according to his abilities, to each man according to his needs. This is the goal for which the ICU strives along with all other organised workers throughout the world. Further this organisation does not foster or encourage antagonism towards other established bodies, political or otherwise, of African peoples, or of organised European labour.
Source: Thomas Karis and Gwendolyn M. Carter, editors, 1972, From Protest to Challenge: a documentary history of African politics in South Africa, 1882-1964, vol.one, pp. 325-326